Board games may be having a moment, but it’s probably safe to say that we’ve never loved Parcheesi or Monopoly like the Vikings loved their games. A new report published in the European Journal of Archaeology says the games’ inclusion aboard burial boats shows their importance “at home, on board ship, and in the hall of the gods.”
Archaeologist Mark A. Hall is a curator at the Perth Museum & Art Gallery in the UK. Hall’s research has focused on material culture (that is, stuff) from the medieval period, with an emphasis on board games. In his new paper, Hall considers the Vikings’ motivations for including board games in 36 burial boats recovered from 14 different countries. The oldest of the boats could date back to the year 150 CE; the youngest set to sea around the year 1000.
In addition to the deceased and their weapons, the boats contained playing pieces and game boards made of ivory, bone, glass, whalebone, and amber. Most of the pieces would have belonged to one of two games: Nine Men’s Morris and a chess-like game called hnefatafl. While both men and women had boat burials, board games were "almost exclusively" buried with men, Hall writes.
Consider, if you will, the realities of day-to-day Viking life, which typically involved a lot of time sitting on boats. If you weren’t rowing or sailing, you’d likely have nothing to do—a dangerous prospect in a book-free culture on a vessel full of amped-up fighters. But if you had a board game, you’d have a way to keep yourself occupied and stay friendly with your crewmates. Like car games on a long family trip, board games were peacekeepers, strengthening social ties while preventing unnecessary scuffles.
Partly because of this, Hall argues that the games were included for two reasons: to honor the dead, and to keep them busy and content in the afterlife. Vikings didn’t know what happened after death (does anyone?), and they likely had some anxiety about the deceased. But by stocking the decedent’s burial boat with important and symbolic objects, the Vikings may have thought they could prevent their loved ones from haunting them by simply keeping them busy.
“Equipping the deceased in burial would have seen them provided for in afterlife both as an act of remembrance and to make sure the dead were not lacking in anything,” Hall writes, “ensuring that they would move on and not—disturbingly—be drawn back to the living world.”
But Hall thinks the games likely served multiple roles. In addition to ghost insurance, they may have paid tribute to the deceased’s valor or victories in battle. They may also have been simple symbolic reminders of the living world. Shrouded in remembrance, uncertainty, and metaphor, the burial rituals were “not poetry,” Hall writes, “but they were poetical.”
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